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Obama urges strikes on Syria, but will seek approval from Congress

The announcement means no action is likely before September 9, when lawmakers return.
/ Source: MSNBC TV

The announcement means no action is likely before September 9, when lawmakers return.

US President Barack Obama speaks about Syria from the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, DC, on August 31, 2013. (Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

President Obama said Saturday that the U.S. “should take military action” against Syria in response to a chemical weapons attack perpetrated by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad against his own citizens earlier this month—but added that he will seek authorization from Congress first.

“I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian targets,” Obama said in a speech from the White House Rose Garden, adding that the potential strikes would be “designed to be limited in duration and scope.”

But he continued: “I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress.”

Congress is currently out of session and is not scheduled to return until Sept. 9. House Speaker John Boehner said Saturday that the House would take up the debate when it returns from summer recess—essentially ruling out the idea of calling lawmakers back early.

“This provides the president time to make his case to Congress and the American people,” Boehner said.

Obama’s inner circle was said to be split on the idea of seeking congressional approval, NBC News’s David Gregory reports. But Americans strongly support the idea. An NBC News poll conducted Wednesday and Thursday showed 79% of respondents wanted Obama to seek lawmakers’ approval.

In addition, the move appears to buy Obama some time to continue diplomatic efforts aimed at removing Assad from office, and it forces Republicans to take a stance on the issue of military action—something many had appeared loath to do.

The U.S. government disclosed evidence Friday that it said confirmed that the Syrian government used rockets and artillery to fire a nerve agent into a Damascus suburb that is a rebel stronghold. The intelligence shows “that more than 1,400 died as a result of that attack, including more than 400 children.”

Obama called the attack the “worst chemical weapons attack of the 21st century,” and “an assault on human dignity.” He added that it threatens U.S. national security and poses a risk to our allies in the region.

But nonetheless, he said he intended to ask lawmakers for authorization before proceeding. “While I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I believe that the country will be stronger” with such approval, he said.

Obama said he was not willing to wait for the U.N., which he described as “completely paralyzed and unwilling to hold Assad accountable.”

He said that the chairman of the joint chiefs has told him that our capacity to strike is “not time-sensitive,” adding: “It will be effective tomorrow, or one week from now.”

The president did not outline what he intended to do if Congress refuses to sign off on military action. But he made a forceful case for such action.

“What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?” Obama asked.

“I know well that we are weary of war,” Obama continued, and added that “we cannot resolve the underlying conflict with our military.”

But, he said, “we are the United States of America, and we cannot, and must not, turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus.”

Anti-war protesters, gathered outside the White House, could be heard chanting before the president spoke, NBC News reported—a stark reminder of the public’s deep skepticism about another Mideast military venture.

Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain responded to Obama’s speech via Twitter: “I understand and support Barack Obama’s position on #Syria.” On Thursday, British lawmakers rejected a proposal to authorize military action, which Cameron supported.

Speaking before Obama’s speech, Russian president Vladimir Putin dismissed the Obama administration’s claim that Assad was behind the Damascus chemical weapons attack as “nonsense.”

Member of Congress from both parties had urged Obama to seek lawmakers’ approval before acting.

In a statement released after Obama’s speech, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said:

“Today the President advised me that he will seek an authorization for the use of force from the Congress prior to initiating any combat operations against Syria in response to the use of chemical weapons. The President’s role as commander-in-chief is always strengthened when he enjoys the expressed support of the Congress.”

The top four GOPers in the House, Boehner of Ohio, Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California, and Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, today issued the following joint statement.

“Under the Constitution, the responsibility to declare war lies with Congress.  We are glad the president is seeking authorization for any military action in Syria in response to serious, substantive questions being raised.  In consultation with the president, we expect the House to consider a measure the week of September 9th.  This provides the president time to make his case to Congress and the American people.”